Advent Penance Service: The Light of God’s Mercy

Readings: Isaiah 30:19-21, 23-26 | Luke 3:1-6

I’ve been speaking to the second grade children about reconciliation as they prepare for their first Confession this coming Saturday. One of the images I’ve given them to picture sin is to imagine it as a huge boulder, which stands between them and God. Because of that boulder, we can’t get to God, can’t talk to him or walk with him. When we try to move the boulder, well, we just can’t, because it’s way too big and heavy for us. So what is it then that will actually move the boulder? And the answer is God’s mercy.

On Tuesday, we began the Holy Year of Mercy, called for by Pope Francis. During this year, we will have the opportunity to reflect on God’s mercy in very deliberate ways. We will have opportunities, as we always do, to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy: feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, forgiving offenses. But we’ll also be called to enter into mercy, through the sacrament of Penance, which is what brings us here tonight.

Pope Francis, in the document that called for the Year of Mercy, spoke of Jesus as the face of the Father’s mercy, a truth that he says may as well sum up the Christian faith. Then he says that we need to contemplate God’s mercy constantly and in many ways. He writes:

It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness. (Misericordie Vultus, 2.)

So mercy is that reality that bridges the gap between God and humanity, smashing the boulder that I asked the second grade children to imagine. This evening’s readings speak of the ministry of mercy, perhaps taken up in a special way by Saint John the Baptist. In our Gospel, he traveled through the whole region to proclaim not just any baptism, but a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That proclamation speaks of what is necessary for mercy to be able to work, and that is repentance. God wants to show us mercy, but we have to seek mercy out, open our hearts to mercy. Because mercy changes us. It makes us a new creation, it gives us that salvific grace that restores our friendship with God.

It’s no secret that our world is a dark place, now as much as ever. Our God’s mercy lights the fire that obliterates the darkness. And thus Isaiah can proclaim that “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun, and the light of the sun will be seven times greater, like the light of seven days.” Because mercy also changes the world. When our sins are forgiven, the world – or at least our corner of it – is a harbor of mercy, and that light helps others to find the way too.

Indeed, the struggle between light and darkness is what Advent is all about. The season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness, sure, but more than that the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts. This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.

In Advent, God meets all that darkness head-on. We don’t cower in the darkness; neither do we try to cover over the light. Instead we put the lamp on a lampstand and shine the light into every dark corner of our lives and our world. This light of mercy is a light that changes everything. It doesn’t just expose what’s imperfect and cause shame, instead it burns the light of God’s salvation into everything and everyone it illumines, making all things new.

And so that’s why we’re here tonight.  We receive the light of God’s mercy by being open to it and accepting it, tonight in a sacramental way.  Tonight, as we did at our baptism, we reject the darkness of sin and we “look east” as the hymn says, to accept the light of Christ which would dawn in all of our hearts.  Tonight we lay before our God everything that is broken in us, we hold up all of our darkness to be illumined by the light of God’s healing mercy.

Tonight, our sacrament disperses the gloomy clouds of our sin and disperses the dark shadows of death that lurk within us.  The darkness in and around us is no match for the light of Christ.  As we approach Christmas, the light of God’s mercy is ever nearer.  Jesus is, as the Gospel of John tells us, “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

This fall, it was a real pain trying to get in and out of my driveway at the rectory, let alone into our parking lot here at church. The village had torn up the streets in order to rebuild them. It was a huge inconvenience then, but the streets are nice to travel on right now. My dad used to say that there are tearer-uppers and fixer-uppers when it comes to road construction, and apparently there are ten times as many tearer-uppers as there are fixer-uppers. Now, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but when you’re sitting in a traffic jam, it starts to make real sense!

We live in this area where there are just two seasons: winter and road construction, and so when we hear the prophet Baruch say “God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God,” well, we may just cringe a little bit. But I think we can sure relate to the experience.

At the time of the Babylonian empire, whenever the monarch traveled workers would precede him leveling the ground and filling in ditches to make the way smooth for his chariots. So that explains Baruch’s prophecy, and also the prophecy of Isaiah that St. Luke quotes in today’s gospel: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” And it’s easy for us to extrapolate that in order to prepare the way for our monarch, Jesus Christ our king, we would want the way to be smooth and pristine too.

But for us, the roadwork isn’t so much the topography of the countryside as it is the topography of our spiritual lives. We all have rough spots, crooked ways and assorted obstacles on our spiritual paths. Our intentions to be friends with God may be good, but often we have lost our way or been stuck in a kind of spiritual traffic-jam. Our goal is communion with our friend, Jesus Christ. Our best intentions are to get there. Our frustration is that often we are derailed and never seem to reach the goal. But the promise is that God will indeed bring that good work to fulfillment, as St. Paul says in today’s second reading, and we will then rejoice in our salvation with all God’s holy ones.

But all of that presupposes that we are clear about the fact that we need a Savior. We need God’s mercy. Wherever we are on the journey to Christ, whatever the obstacles we face, God promises to make it right through Jesus Christ – if we will let him. We may be facing the valley of hurts or resentments. God will fill in that valley. Perhaps we are up against a mountain of sinful behavior or shame. God will level that mountain. We may be lost on the winding roads of procrastination or apathy. God will straighten out that way. We may be riding along on the rough and bumpy ways of poor choices, sinful relationships and patterns of sin. God will make all those ways smooth. And all flesh – every one of us, brothers and sisters – we will all see the salvation of God. That’s a promise. God will forgive us all of our sins. But we have to be open to the experience.

And so, in the spirit of encouraging that openness, I want to make a very personal invitation. If you find that you have quite a bit of unfinished road construction to do in your spiritual life, I invite you to take care of it this Advent. The Sacrament of Penance is where we Catholics level those mountains, straighten those winding roads, and fill in the potholes that have derailed us along the way. And we have plenty of opportunities to do that. This Thursday, we will have our Advent Reconciliation Service, with a number of priests available to hear your confession. We also have First Reconciliation on Saturday, and invite all the parents and families of our second graders to go to confession along with their children. And each Saturday we have confessions from 3:45 to 4:30. So you have many opportunities to be open to the “baptism of repentance” that John the Baptist was preaching, and to make the way straight once again for the coming of the Lord in your own life.

Now, having said that, I fully understand that there are many of you here who have not been to confession in many years. I get it. I myself was away from the sacrament for years before God worked on me and brought me back. So here is Father Pat’s “Consumer’s Guide to the Sacrament of Penance:” If you have been away a long time, it will be hard to go back, but take that leap of faith anyway. Be honest with the priest and tell him that it’s been years. Even tell him if you’re not sure how to make a confession. If he doesn’t welcome you back warmly and help you to make a good confession, you have my permission to get up and leave and find a priest who will. Because it’s my job to help you make a good confession. And it’s a privilege and a responsibility that I take very seriously. Nothing must stand in the way of you receiving God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness, because it is a gift too precious to miss.

That’s what Advent is about. The coming of Christ in our world isn’t just something that happened two thousand years ago. Advent means that Christ is coming into our world today, and every day, if we would just open our hearts and smooth out a place for him. God becomes incarnate in our world every time someone turns back to him and repents of his or her sin. God’s love comes to birth every time we accept the gift of forgiveness and the unfathomable grace of the Eucharist. Advent means that Christ is Emmanuel, God-with-us NOW. Advent means that the salvation and forgiveness that God promises us is available to us NOW.

The truth is, brothers and sisters in Christ, we come to this holy place to this sacred Liturgy, each of us at different places in the spiritual road. Our goal – all of us – is to advance on that road, tackling the obstacles that face us, and defeating our sin by the power of God’s forgiveness and mercy. There may only be one unforgivable sin: the sin of thinking that we don’t need a Savior. When we rationalize that we’re basically good people and we’re okay and that there is nothing wrong with our lives or our relationships, then we’re lost. It’s not that God doesn’t want to forgive us this sin, it’s more that we refuse to have it forgiven. If Advent teaches us anything, it’s got to be that we all need that baptism of repentance that John the Baptist preached, that we all need to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts, making straight the paths for his return to us.

On Tuesday, we begin the Holy Year of Mercy. What better way to begin than by experiencing God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Penance? The Psalmist sings today that “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.” I pray that you all find that out in the Sacrament of Penance this Advent season.

The Second Sunday of Advent: Be Reconciled

Today’s readings

I don’t know about you, but this week, when I heard that New York was going to announce whether another police officer was indicted or not for the death of a suspect, I pretty much held my breath. After seeing all that has been going on in Ferguson, Missouri, I just feared the worst. And none of it is good. Crime is a problem, and so is racism; all of this comes about as a byproduct of the reign of sin in the world.

And so as we enter into Advent this year, I think we need it more than ever. We need Jesus to come and put an end to all our foolishness, to fix all our brokenness, and heal all our sin and shame. I am guessing the followers of Saint John the Baptist felt the same way. They dealt with all the same stuff that we do: corruption in government, poverty, racism, and crime – none of this is new to our day and age. And so they did what I think has to be a model for all of us today: they came to John, acknowledged their sins, and accepted the baptism of repentance.

They came to John, because at that point, Jesus wasn’t in full swing with his ministry, and they were seeking something new and something good. We then, might come to Jesus in the same way, come to the Church, seeking something good and something new. And then, like them, we have to acknowledge our sins – personal sins and those that we participate in as a society. And then we have to accept the process of repentance. We can’t keep sinning; we have to repent, literally be sorry for our sins and turn away from them, as we turn back to God. That’s an important Advent message for every time and place.

It genuinely strikes me that, if we’re ever going to get past the events at Ferguson or New York, or if we’re ever going to finally put an end to whatever sadness this world brings us, we have to begin that by putting an end to the wrong that we have done. That’s why reconciliation is so important. What each of us does – right or wrong – affects the rest of us. The grace we put forward when we follow God’s will blesses others. But the sin we set in motion when we turn away from God saddens the whole Body of Christ. We are one in the Body of Christ, and if we are going to keep the body healthy, then each of us has to attend to ourselves.

So today, I am going to ask you to go to confession before Christmas. I don’t do that because I think you’re all horrible people or anything like that. I do that because I know that we all – including me – have failed to be a blessing of faith, hope and love to ourselves and others at some point, I know that so many people struggle with persistent sins, little thorns in the flesh, day in and day out. And God never meant it to be that way. He wants you to experience his love and mercy and forgiveness and healing, and you get that most perfectly in the Sacrament of Penance.

There was a time in my life that I didn’t go to confession for a long time. I had been raised at a time in the Church when that sacrament was downplayed. It came about from a really flawed idea of the sacrament and the human person. But the Church has always taught that in the struggle to live for God and be a good person, we will encounter pitfalls along the way. We’ll fail in many ways, and we will need forgiveness and the grace to get back up and move forward. That’s what the Sacrament of Penance is for!

One day, I finally realized that I needed that grace and I returned to the sacrament. The priest welcomed me back, did not pass judgment, and helped me to make a good confession. It was an extremely healing experience for me, and now I make it my business to go to the sacrament as frequently as I can, because I need that healing and mercy and grace. And you do too. So please don’t leave those wonderful gifts unwrapped under the tree. Go to Confession and find out just how much God loves you.

When you do find that out, you’ll be better able to help the rest of the Body of Christ to be the best it can be. When your relationship is right with God, you will help the people around you know God’s love for them too. That kind of grace bursts forth to others all the time.

This year, we have plenty of opportunities to receive the Sacrament of Penance. Those of you who have a second grader receiving the sacrament for the first time can also receive the sacrament when they do, next Saturday. Then our parish reconciliation service is Tuesday, December 16th at 7pm. Finally, on the weekend just before Christmas, on Saturday the 20th, we will have four priests here from 4:00 to 5:00 or until all are heard. We will also hear confessions after all of the Masses on Sunday the 21st. And if none of those fit in your schedule, or if you would prefer to go to another parish, we will be publishing the schedules for other parishes in the bulletin.

If you have been away from the sacrament for a very long time, I want you to come this Advent. Tell the priest you have been away for a while, and expect that he will help you to make a good confession. All you have to do is to acknowledge your sins and then leave them behind, so that Christmas can be that much more beautiful for you and everyone around you. Don’t miss that gift this year: be reconciled.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

Back in the sixth century before the birth of Christ, the Israelites were in a bad way.  They had been separated from their God by sin: against God’s commands, they had betrayed their covenant with the Lord and made foreign alliances, which he had forbidden them to do.  He forbade this because he knew that as they made these alliances, they would give in to the temptation to worship the so-called gods of the people they with whom they allied themselves.  As punishment, God separated them from their homeland: the cream of the crop of their society was taken into exile in Babylon, and those left behind had no one to lead them and protect them.  Because they moved away from God, God seemed to move away from them.  But he hadn’t: I think it was really they who had exiled themselves from God.  In today’s first reading, God shows them that he still loves them and cares for them, and promises to make them a new people . I love the line: “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?”  God would indeed bring them back and create their community anew.

The Israelites were in exile, but exile can take so many forms.  And Saint Paul had a good sense of that.  For him, the exile was anything that was not Christ; a sentiment we should embrace.  Saint Paul knows that he has not yet taken possession of the glory that is promised him by Christ, and so he wants to leave behind the exile of the world and strains forward to all that lies ahead, the goal and prize of God’s calling in Christ.

Which brings us back to the woman caught in adultery.  We certainly feel sorry for her, caught in the act, dragged in front of Jesus and publicly humiliated.  But the truth is, just like the Israelites in the sixth century before Christ, she had actually sinned.  And that sin threatened to put her into exile from the community; well, it even threatened her life.  The in-your-face reversal in the story, though, is that Jesus doesn’t consider her the only sinner – or even the greatest sinner – in the whole incident.  We should probably wonder about the man with whom she was committing adultery; that sin does, after all, take two.  And as serious a sin as adultery certainly is, Jesus makes it clear that there are plenty of serious sins out there, and they all exile us from God.  As he sits there, writing in the sand, they walk away one by one.  What was he writing?  Was it a kind of examination of conscience?  A kind of list of the sins of the Pharisees?  We don’t know.  But in Jesus’ words and actions, those Pharisees too were convicted of their sins, and went away – into exile – because of them.

Sin does that to us.  It makes exiles out of all of us.  The more we sin, the further away from God we become.  And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Jimmy and Suzy went to visit their grandparents for a week during the summer.  They had a great time, but one day Jimmy was bouncing a ball in the house, which he knew he shouldn’t be doing.  It didn’t take long for the ball to hit grandma’s favorite vase, knocking it off the table and breaking it.  He picked up the pieces and went out back and hid them in the woodshed.  Looking around, the only person who was around was his sister Suzy.  She didn’t say anything, but later that day, when grandma asked her to help with the dishes, Suzy said “I think Jimmy wanted to help you,” giving him a rather knowing look.  So he did.  The next day, grandpa asked Jimmy if he wanted to go out fishing.  Suzy jumped right in: “He’d like to, but he promised grandma he would weed the garden.”  So Jimmy weeded the garden.  As he was doing that, he felt pretty guilty and decided to confess the whole thing to grandma.  When he told her what had happened, grandma said, “I know.  I was looking out the back window when you were hiding the pieces in the woodshed.  I was wondering how long you were going to let Suzy make a slave of you.”

That’s how it is with sin: it makes a slave of us, and keeps us from doing what we really want to do.  It puts us deep in exile, just as surely as the ancient Israelites.  And it doesn’t have to be that way.  You see, it’s easier than we think to end up in exile.  All we have to do is a good examination of conscience and then think about the way those sins have affected us.  Have they made us feel distant from God, family and friends?  Have they caused us to drift in our life and not feel God’s presence in times of hardship?

Exile is heartbreaking.  And to the exile of sin, God has three things to say today:

First, “Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.”  That sounds like something that’s easy to say but hard to do.  But the fact is, once we have accepted God’s grace and forgiveness, that grace will actually help us to be free from sin.  Of course, that’s impossible to do all on our own.  But God never commands us to do something that is impossible for us, or maybe better, he never commands us to do something that is impossible for him to do in us.  God’s grace is there if we but turn to him.

Second, God says: “Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead.”  Once sin is confessed and grace is accepted, the sin is forgotten.  God is not a resentful tyrant who keeps a list of our offenses and holds them against us forever.  If we confess our sins and accept the grace that is present through the saving sacrifice of Jesus, the sins are forgotten.  But it is up to us to accept that grace.  We truly have to confess so that we can forget what lies behind and be ready for the graces ahead.

Third, God says: “See, I am doing something new.  Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”  We are the ones who get stuck in the past, always fearing to move forward because of past sins, hurts, and resentments.  We are called today to be open to the new thing God is doing in our lives.  The way to open up is to confess our sins and get rid of the past.

For a long time in my young life, I didn’t go to confession.  I didn’t think I needed to.  I grew up in that whole time of the church when it was all about how you felt about yourself.  Garbage.  I knew something was wrong when I was in my young adulthood and felt lost.  I took a chance and went to confession at a penance service, and the priest welcomed me back.  In that moment, I knew exactly the new thing God was doing in me, and it felt like a huge weight was lifted off of me.  In fact, I was released from the exile of all my past sins and hurts.

I never forgot that, and whenever anyone comes to me in confession and says it’s been a long time since they went, I am quick to welcome them back.  Because that’s what God wants, and it’s a great privilege for me to be part of that.  He wants to lift that weight off of you, to end your exile.  All it takes is for you to see that new thing he is doing in you, and to strain forward to what lies ahead.

So we have just a few times left to receive that grace before Holy Week and Easter.  On Monday evening at 6:30, we will hear confessions until all are heard.  Saturday, as usual, we will hear confessions from 4:00 to 4:45pm before Mass.  And next Sunday, Palm Sunday, we will hear confessions after the 7:30, 9:30 and 11:30 Masses until all are heard.  Would that we would all take this opportunity to forget what lies behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead.  God is doing a new thing in all of us these Lenten days.  Let us all be open to it.

The Second Sunday of Lent [C]

Today’s readings

One of the best Lenten reminders that I can think of comes in today’s second reading.  Here, Saint Paul tells the Philippians that “our citizenship is in heaven.”  We know how true this is.  We may have made homes here, and experienced our lives thus far here on earth, but the truth is we are just passing through this place.  Our true citizenship is in heaven, and it is the goal of all our lives to get there.  That’s why Lent is so important: this season reminds us of where we are going and gives us the opportunity to get there, if we have been off the path, which we all have in some way.  That’s the Lenten message of repentance and it’s the reason for our fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

We see that message throughout today’s Liturgy of the Word.  In the first reading, God promises Abram – later to be named Abraham – that he would make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.  Abraham placed his faith in that promise, and God sanctified it by making covenant with him.  In the Gospel, Peter, John and James get to see a little bit of the heavenly inheritance when they experience the transfigured Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, the personification of the Law and the Prophets.  On this Transfiguration Sunday, we can catch a glimpse of where we’re going, and hopefully be energized anew to pursue that inheritance.

The way that we pursue it is the essential Lenten discipline of repentance.  Here we recognize the fact that we have wandered from the path to our reward, ask God’s pardon, receive the mercy and are restored to the inheritance promised to Abraham and made perfect in the covenant carved out of the sacrifice of Christ.  That’s why we have Lent each year: we get the opportunity to repent, refocus and get back on the way. [We celebrate that this morning with Brian, our candidate who is preparing for Full Communion with our Church and will soon take part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time.  As he prepares for that sacrament, we can see our own need for God’s healing mercy.]  The alternative to repentance is truly life in hell: and it’s not so much that God sends us there, but more that we choose to go there by shutting God out and not receiving the gift of mercy that he longs to pour out on us.

I’d like to illustrate this by plucking out one of the story lines in the musical, Les Miserables.  I had seen the stage version, but went on New Year’s Day to see the movie version with a priest friend, and it reminded me once again of the incredible truth that the story proclaims.  Of the musicals that I have seen, this is truly my favorite.  If you haven’t yet seen it, you should, and please know I’m not spoiling the whole thing for you.

The story begins with the release of the central character, Jean Valjean, from prison.  But even as he’s released, he finds out from his jailer, Javert, that he really will never be free.  He must carry papers that show that he was a convict for his entire life.  Now, one might argue that this would be appropriate if he had, say, murdered someone.  But we learn that his crime was a very excusable one: he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her child.  For that, he served nineteen years in prison, and would be on parole for the rest of his life.   The jailer, Javert, is the other central character here.  He felt Valjean’s sentence was a just one, and he could say that because his idea of the law was very black or white: either you did what was right, or you could go to hell – literally.

As the story unfolds, Valjean quickly learns the gravity of his plight.  He can hardly find work or a place to stay, because the papers that he has to carry have him branded as a criminal, and even if someone would take him in or give him work, they were going to cheat him, knowing that he could not complain.  He is eventually taken in by the local bishop, who gives him a meal and a place to stay.  He treats Valjean kindly, but Valjean doesn’t know how to receive it.  So he gets up during the night, takes some of the bishop’s silver, and heads out.  He is quickly brought in by the police who take him to the bishop and tell him that Valjean claimed the items were a gift.  The bishop, surprisingly, not only backs up his story, but says that Valjean had “left the best behind” and gives him two silver candlesticks.  As the police leave, the bishop tells Valjean that he has been given grace in order that he might “become an honest man” and serve a higher purpose.  That’s how grace works; we must receive it and then share it.

So that’s what Valjean does.  He uses the money to start a business, which employs many people who would otherwise be poor, and he becomes the mayor of the town.  But he learns that Valjean has continued to pursue him, and although he originally thought the mayor was Valjean, it turns out another man had just confessed to his crimes and is that very day being sentenced.  He comes to Valjean to ask his pardon and offer his resignation for allegedly mistaking Valjean for, well, Valjean.  At this point, Valjean could have ended Javert’s long career and pretty much ended his life.  But he doesn’t do that; he goes to court and confesses so that the innocent man won’t have to pay for his crimes.

Valjean escapes the grasp of Javert and goes on to take in Cosette, the young daughter of a dying woman.  He pledges to her mother that Cosette would want for nothing, and he raises her as his own daughter.  This has him pretty much constantly on the run, always looking over his shoulder for Javert.  Fast forward a bit to the revolution, during which Javert works as a spy and is caught by the student revolutionaries.  Valjean helps them, and is promised a reward.  He says that he wants nothing except to dispatch their prisoner.  And it’s here that Valjean offers grace to Javert for the second time in the story.  He lets him go and pretends to fire a gun at him, making the revolutionaries think he is dead.

Javert continues to pursue Valjean, swearing that he will “never rest” until he sees him “safe behind bars.”  Later, after watching Valjean slip away yet again while extending mercy to a dying revolutionary, Javert confronts the issue of the grace that Valjean shows juxtaposed with what he thinks of him personally.  He wrestles with why Valjean would choose to show him mercy, when he could have taken his life and had his vengeance.  Unable to make sense of that, he realizes that he is already in hell.  And he’s right – when we cannot accept grace, we have shut God out and are, in fact, in hell.  That’s what hell is.  At this point, all Javert could do was die, and so he commits suicide.  In the movie version, that’s done in a rather jarring fashion, too.  For me, this is the saddest part of the story, bar none – and that says a lot, because I usually shed quite a few tears when I see the show.

So there are two paths here.  We can take Javert’s path, in which we refuse mercy to others and to ourselves, and trust instead in our own beliefs.  When these don’t turn out to hold water, the realization is that this is hell, and all we have left to do is die.  Or we can take Valjean’s path, accepting grace, using it to change our hearts and our lives, and live the life we were meant to live: a life that seeks out others and extends them mercy.  The lesson here is that mercy transfigures us and puts us back on the path to our heavenly inheritance.  Valjean eventually gets to see that, but I won’t spoil the end for you.

This Lent, I propose that we take Valjean’s path, and use our fasting, almsgiving and prayer to get back on the path to heaven.  I propose that we celebrate God’s mercy by taking part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  We have lots of opportunities for that.  Mondays at 6:30, we hear confessions until all are heard.  On Saturdays, we hear them from 4pm to 4:45.  This coming Saturday, we have our morning of healing and will be hearing confessions from 10am to 11, when we’ll celebrate our Anointing of the Sick Mass.  And we have the Parish Lenten Penance Service coming up next month.  Please be sure to go to confession sometime during Lent.  You’ll be amazed at how much you, and the world around you, can be transfigured by God’s mercy, and you’ll find all the world to be clothed in dazzling white.   It’s an experience not to be missed, and while Javert thought his was the “way of the Lord,” the Sacrament of Reconciliation truly is.

Second Sunday of Advent [B]

Today’s readings

When I was a teenager, some of us would climb up onto the roof of our house on the fourth of July so that we could see the fireworks.  It was by far the best seat in the house.  We could usually see the fireworks not only in our own town but in some others nearby as well.  Time has passed and the trees are taller and I am older and less okay with heights, so we don’t do that any more, but it was a beautiful view back then.  You’ve experienced that if you’ve ever been hiking somewhere beautiful and hilly or mountainous, and you get to the highest point along the way and take in a breathtaking view.  What wonderful things we can see when we’re up on the heights.

That’s the challenge I take from today’s readings.  Isaiah urges Jerusalem to go up onto a high mountain.  From there they can see the Lord coming in power.  Us too, I think, if we’re open to going there.  I think the climbing is less literal than it was, perhaps, for them, but it is climbing all the same.  It means ascending in our spiritual lives, going up higher in our living of the Gospel and call to discipleship.

The prophet Isaiah makes the case in our first reading:

Go up on to a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD…

Isaiah was speaking to a people in exile.  They had sinned, had not respected God’s commandments, they even rejected the prophet’s call to get their acts together, and now they’re paying the price.  After an initial message of comfort early on in today’s first reading, Isaiah now turns and gives them the way back.  Do they want to have rest from their enemies?  Well then, climb up high, see your God coming in power, and cry out at the top of your voice the message you should have been proclaiming all along.

That is the charge we are all receiving in these Advent days.  The Israelites aren’t the only ones who need to get their acts together.  We do too.  We can look in the papers for signs of communal sin: world financial markets coming at least close to the brink of failure, corporate greed that makes the news time and time again, the effects of poverty run rampant resulting in increased crime.  But we almost don’t have to go that far to find our discipleship lacking.  We can look at our personal sin: the times we have neglected prayer or have been judgmental of others.  The times we have chosen not to help others when we could have, and so much more.  It is high time we climbed up onto that high mountain and started to live the life the Gospel calls us to live.

Thankfully, Advent gives us the time to look at that in our lives.  That does mean, though, that among all our gift-buying and party-going, we have to make time for our God who gives us the reason for celebrating the season in the first place.  Maybe this Advent can see us creating even five minutes more time for prayer, reflecting on the scripture readings for the day, or the meditation in the blue books we have available.  Advent should see us repenting of our sins, going to confession even if we haven’t been in hears, and turning our hearts back to God.

I want to be absolutely clear here.  This Advent, if you haven’t already been to confession, you should go.  We have many times available for you to do that.  Every Saturday, we are here from 4:00 to 4:45.  We have an Advent Parish Penance Service scheduled for Thursday, December 15 at 7:00.  There will be several priests here to hear your confession.  You can always also make an appointment with me or Father Steve.  We will also be publishing a list of local parishes’ schedules in case ours doesn’t work for you.

Perhaps the more pressing issue is what happens if you haven’t been to confession in a long time?  What do you do if you don’t know what to do?  The answer is just go: tell the priest you haven’t been to confession in a long time, and that you need help.  It is our job to help you make a good confession, and we can help you do that.  For me, it is always a great joy to help someone come back to the sacraments.

As we ascend that high mountain by confessing our sins and revitalizing our prayer life, we should also reach out in service to others.  Adopting a needy family for Christmas, or collecting food for the food pantry, or giving to Toys for Tots.  These and so many other opportunities are there for us this time of year to give of ourselves and help others in their time of need.  Giving of ourselves helps us to see others as God does, and gives us a heart that is like the heart of God.

Isaiah says that we should climb that high mountain and announce the good news, the Gospel, crying out at the top of our voice.  It’s not like we need to stand on a soapbox on a street corner to do that.  We don’t even have to travel to a mountainous region.  All we have to do is to live the Gospel with integrity, because then everyone will see that.  Who knows if our small acts of faith, prayer and service won’t lead someone else down the right path in their own lives?

Today, we celebrate the baptism of NNNNN.  This is an occasion of joy for HIS/HER family, but also for us as a parish.  Every time someone is baptized into the faith, our Church is one person stronger.  We need to be supportive of HIS/HER parents and godparents by being a parish that lives the faith and helps them to do the same.  Children need to be part of a community that takes its own baptismal call seriously, so that they can learn to do that too.  It is our responsibility as people of faith to help our children climb up onto that high mountain that Isaiah talks about, so that, knowing the Lord and having a relationship with him, they can one day enter with all of us into eternal life.

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

Sometimes, as St. Paul reminds the Romans today, we do not know how to pray as we ought.  In fact, learning how to pray as we ought is a discipline that takes a lifetime to perfect.  The saints have done it, and maybe you even know some living saints whose prayer is pretty close to the way we ought to do it.  But for the rest of us, prayer is a discipline that takes hard work and constant attention.  It’s a good thing then, that the work and attention it requires is so joy-filled and rewarding.

But no, we don’t know how to pray as we ought, do we?  I remember back when I was in college, all the way through probably my early thirties.  I thought I had the prayer thing all figured out.  When we’re young, sometimes we’re misled that way.  Of course, I was off the mark by a lot, but that’s to be expected.  So I have a confession to make, and it cannot leave this room, okay?  My confession is that I always thought I never had to go to confession because:

  • I never did anything all that bad … or
  • The stuff I did was so bad that the priest would be shocked … or
  • God already knows my sins, so why do I have to tell him and a priest about them? … or
  • God has long forgotten my sins, so why bring them up again?

Maybe you’ve heard these arguments, or others like them before.  Maybe those arguments have even come from your own lips.  But sticking to my own confession here, I made all of these arguments myself at one time or another.  And like a lot of people who grew up in my day, I didn’t go to confession hardly ever at all.  But then, fast forward to about my mid-thirties, during a time when I was having a crisis of faith.  I was trying to figure out at the time if I would stay in the Catholic Church, or whether I’d go join Willow Creek along with some of my friends.  I had gone to a few of their services and found them inspiring, and was seriously giving thought to joining that church.

I prayed about it and really felt that God told me that he didn’t care which Church I was in, as long as I was committed to it.  But there were some obstacles to my joining Willow Creek.  One of them is that I would have to be rebaptized, which I think the Scriptures tell us is totally off-base.  The other is that they only had communion once a month, and it wasn’t actually Jesus but only a symbol, and that didn’t work for me.  But we’ll bracket those two obstacles for now – they are the stuff of other homilies.  The issue that finally settled it for me was my long-neglected friend Confession.

During a sermon on one of the nights, one of the elders of the Church, who apparently was an ex-Catholic, talked about his experience of Confession as a child.  He talked about the terrifying dark box he had to go into, and how he had to tell all his sins to someone who didn’t really have any authority (apparently he missed Jesus’ the passing on of the keys to the kingdom to St. Peter in Scripture, but we’ll leave that alone).  And finally he said something like “after that, I got a penance and the priest said something that I guess was supposed to wipe my sins away.”  It was very condescending and really flew in the face of what I believed about the Sacrament of Penance, even though I had not gone to confession in years.

To make a long story short, that really tugged on me, and I finally decided to stay in the Catholic Church (well, obviously, right?).  But God’s call to make sure I committed to the Church I chose stayed with me, and I knew that meant I had to go to Confession.  So I went to a Penance Service at my church and went to a priest that I knew there.  I confessed I hadn’t been to Confession in years, and I’ll never forget what he said: “Welcome back.”  That confirmed for me that the Sacrament of Penance was incredibly important to my prayer life – to any prayer life, and it’s been part of me ever since.

Why is it so important?  Well yes, it’s because we all mess up here and there in little and big ways every day.  By doing that, we separate ourselves from God and the Church and we need to be brought back.  But more than that, the Sacrament of Penance puts us close to God in the most intimate way possible: by experiencing his mercy.  The Wisdom writer in our first reading today makes this clear: “you gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins.”  And it is that hope that we so much need, isn’t it?  Because we are in a world that sometimes causes us to let go of hope, to lose sight of hope, and finally to give up on hope.  The joy-filled Sacrament of Penance gives us that sacramental encounter with God’s hope which is a hope that nothing can destroy.

So what about you?  How long has it been since your last Confession?  If it’s been a long time, what is it that is keeping you away?  I encourage you to go back soon, and in order to make that easier, here is Fr. Pat’s consumer’s guide to the Sacrament of Penance:

  1. If you have been away a long time, say that to the priest when you go in.  Tell him, “Father it’s been years since my last confession, and I might need some help to do this right.”  If he doesn’t welcome you back and fall all over himself trying to help you make a good confession, you have my permission to get up and leave and go find a priest who is more welcoming.  Because it is my job to help you make a good confession, it is my job to make sure the experience is meaningful for you, it is my job to make you want to come back, and I take that very seriously.
  2. Tell the priest whatever sins you can remember.  Don’t worry if you forget one or two, you can always confess them later if they still bother you.  If there’s something that you think there’s no way you can say, say it anyway.  We have heard just about everything, and we are not there to judge you.  Our presence in the Sacrament is to help you find the way to God’s mercy, nothing more than that.
  3. Sometimes people feel like they can’t go to a priest they know because maybe the priest will think less of them after it’s over.  Well, that would be true if I had never sinned, but let me tell you, I have plenty of my own sins, and I am humbled whenever I hear another person’s confession.  Because I am a sinner too, I am more motivated than you could possibly imagine to help you find God’s mercy.  I am always so humbled that people come to me and unburden themselves to find God’s mercy.  I couldn’t possibly think poorly of you for confessing whatever was on your heart.  If anything, I would think more of you.
  4. People sometimes worry that a priest will remember their sins.  As you know, we are not permitted, under penalty of excommunication, to reveal anything you say in Confession, or even to confirm or deny that you have spoken with us in Confession.   But we also pray for the grace of forgetfulness.  This is a grace that God grants us: because God has forgotten your sins, we do too.  The last time I told a group of people this, someone came to me afterward and said, “Father, I’m so relieved to hear that forgetfulness is a grace – I thought I was losing my mind!”  But seriously, God forgets your sins, and we do too.

The Psalmist has the right words for us today: “You, O LORD, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
abounding in kindness and fidelity.”  If you haven’t had a sacramental experience of that in a while, I urge you to do it soon.  We’re here every Saturday from 4-4:45pm.  If you need to see us at another time, you can always make an appointment with me or Fr. Ted.  We are here to put you in touch with God’s mercy, and, as Jesus says in the long form of today’s Gospel, to help you become one of t hose who “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”